When I reread my review of Europe In Autumn, I realized I’d actually written a review for Europe At Midnight already. Nearly everything I mentioned there holds true for this second installment in the Fractured Europe Sequence: no filler, solid prose, interesting geopolitical setting, some references to spy novels, no pretension, entertaining, fresh, snappy, imaginative, gritty. As you might know, Midnight is not a sequel to Autumn, but more of a companion volume.
So, what’s the new?
I guess Europe At Midnight is even better as the first book. It’s definitely a lot more science fiction, yet at the same time it remains a solid spy story too. The first chapters hinge on the slow reveal, and there’s a real sense of claustrophobia and mystery. As such, this really is a different novel – yet it has Hutchinson’s stamp clearly all over it.
Midnight‘s pacing is relentless. This is a book that requires attention, nothing is explained. Most books follow predictable paths, even those with so called twists and turns. Not so here. The true mastery of Hutchinson lays in the fact that he again takes the reader on a trip of which the reader simply can’t foresee where things are headed. Fast lane writing with lots of ins and outs.
The book has two main themes: truth, and the possibility of people to fully connect with each other.
The three of us sat there, looking at each other, waiting for someone to start telling the truth. Molson wasn’t going to do it, Michael wasn’t going to do it, and I wasn’t going to do it. We were going to sit here until the end of time, slaves to our profession, faintly embarrassed by it all.
“You don’t know either of those things,” Michael pointed out. “You’ve just assembled the available information into what seems to be a meaningful shape. At best, you’re making a guess.” “A lot of intelligence work is like that,” I said. “In my experience.”
One of the significant moments in the story happens when a character tells his real name to somebody he has known for years. In the world of spooks, obviously people can’t trust each other. The same goes for the world of revolutionary politics. The same goes for politics in general.
So, this book at times takes place on the intersections between politics and spy stuff, but taken as a metaphor, its findings hold true for all humans: can we truly know one another? What secrets do we harbor, secrets we don’t even tell our significant others? What do we actually know for sure? What information can we really trust?
So yes, Europe At Midnight has an epistemological side to it. It’s The Matrix all over. And just as the near future Europe it is set in, this is a fractured story. Content and form are superbly aligned. Hutchinson uses a couple of first person narrators most of the time, and at first it is not always clear who is talking. Just as the characters, readers need to be sharp, and guess their way through the story. In the end, the book hardly provides any answers, yet the story feels wrapped up nonetheless. It does not need a sequel, and I’m guessing Europe At Winter and Europe At Dawn will be companion volumes too.
There’s quite a lot of social and political commentary throughout the book, but it doesn’t distract from the story. As such Hutchinson manages to be both relevant and readable – a combination that goes wrong more often than not.
If you haven’t read the first book, do not read the next two paragraphs. It struck me that Europe At Midnight is a kind of 21st century version of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. That might sound a bit goofy, but bear with me… Just like Susanna Clarke’s 2004 masterpiece, it has Englishness all over it it. Both books revel in a dark kind of humor. And even more importantly, Midnight also deals with characters wanting to explore a hidden alternate reality, an alternate reality that is woven from a different fabric, but very connected nonetheless. This other universe is also at odds with our own, and is of a conservative nature, a universe stuck in a bygone era.
I can understand readers comparing this to the equally excellent The City & The City, but that book is not about a different reality: it is about different perspectives on the same reality, and a lot of brainwashing. So while there is some brainwashing in Midnight too, the comparisons to Miéville’s book ultimately are surface story level only: a detective story and 2 realities. Metaphysically, the comparison to the world of Fairy comes closer. – end
So calling Europe At Midnight the lovechild of Susanna Clarke and John Buchan is just as legitimate as calling it a mix of Agatha Christie and China Miéville, or the adopted son of John le Carré and David Cronenberg.
Anyhow, if you’ve read the first book you probably don’t need this review to convince you. If you haven’t read the first book, don’t sleep on it. Or just start with this one. That’s no problem, it can be read independently.
Europe At Midnight is simply one of the best books published in 2015, regardless of genre. You don’t have to be a speculative fan to like this. Just as the first book, it was nominated for the BSFA, Clarke and Campbell awards. It also got a Red Tentacle nomination. I hope Europe in Winter is as good, and if so, actually wins that BSFA this year: it’s overdue.
ps – Has anybody read The Villages, Hutchinson’s 2001 debut novel? It seems to have flown under everybody’s radar.